Bilingual at Work | How Your Language Skills Can Get You Hired

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Bilingualism, or the ability to speak two or more languages fluently, can be a huge asset for job seekers. As a 2017 report by New American Economy discovered, the need for bilingual workers in the United States more than doubled in five years. And this demand is projected to increase, especially for Spanish, Mandarin Chinese, and Arabic speakers.

But even if you don’t speak one of these languages—or don’t use a second language on the job at all—bilingualism makes you a more adaptable thinker, according to a report by the Language Institute. Quick and flexible thinkers with broad perspectives will benefit any employer.

Language skills in social-impact careers

The New American Economy report also reveals bilingual jobs are common in fields with a high degree of person-to-person interaction. Employers in fields like education, health care, and social work actively seek bilingual workers. Dozens of languages may be represented among students at a school, clients at a housing or health facility, and residents of a neighborhood—especially in urban areas. A staff member who can serve as an interpreter or translator is invaluable. Language skills are also applicable in many advocacy jobs; immigration lawyers, for instance, often need to communicate with clients who may not speak English.

So where can your language skills be best put to use?  The most in-demand bilingual skill depends on where you live. In a place where many people speak a certain language—be it Spanish in Miami, French in Louisiana, or Vietnamese in the Bay Area of California—many jobs strongly encourage bilingual candidates.

Benefits beyond language

Your bilingual skill set can give you an edge whether you speak your second language in the workplace or not. Knowing two languages makes your brain more flexible; switching between two sets of grammar rules, vocabulary, tones, and nuances is a lot of work! In fact, even if you’re only speaking one language, your brain activates both language systems and requires you to focus on one—making you a natural at complex mental tasks.

This adaptability can make you quicker at thinking on your feet, better at workplace problem solving, and a whiz at multitasking. When it comes to working with people, bilingual thinkers can be more adept at “reading” and communicating with others.

Bilingual and bicultural

Linguistic fluency comes in many varieties. If you learned a second language in school, you’ve probably mastered reading, speaking, and listening. But if you spoke two languages at home or learned a second language specific to your ethnic background, you may also be bicultural—someone with insider knowledge of two different cultures. This includes the dominant culture of the country you’re in; for example, the English-speaking culture in many areas of the United States.

Each culture has its own rituals, values, and behaviors that go far beyond language. A bicultural candidate will be able to navigate between the complex aspects of both cultures. While this perspective is key when working with diverse cultural groups, it also gives you a skill you can apply in any job—the ability to understand and combine multiple perspectives at once, known as integrative complexity. Your aptitudes count as a bonus in many ways, from interpersonal skills like mediation and conflict resolution to brainstorming big ideas for an organizational mission.

Promote your skills

You’re a standout candidate! Mention your second language on your resume, even if you don’t consider yourself fully fluent. A little ability can be just the boost you need to bring something extra to the table.

In an interview, you can emphasize your:

  • Ability to understand diverse perspectives;
  • Creativity and inventiveness;
  • Problem-solving expertise;
  • Skill at different modes of communication; and
  • Any other benefits you think bilingualism has given you, since each person’s experience will be different.

Ready to start searching? Check out jobs and volunteer opportunities requiring or encouraging a specific second language skill.

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Bilingual and bicultural readers, how has your knowledge helped you on the job?

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Amy Bergen is a writer based in Portland, Maine. She has experience in the social impact space in Baltimore, Maryland, the educational museum sphere in Columbus, Ohio, and the literary world of New York City.
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